From medicine to research and back

On May 24, hundreds of students from the Faculty of Medicine will be celebrating a significant milestone – graduation. Julia Pon will be among them. As a recent graduate from the Combined Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Medicine (MD/PHD) Program, Dr. Pon has dedicated the last seven years to gaining intensive scientific training, while completing medical school.

Today, she is well on her way to becoming a clinician-scientist. We caught-up with Dr. Pon to learn more about her research, how it feels to graduate and what she plans on doing next.

Julia Pon

What attracted you to the MD/PhD program?
I was attracted to the MD/PhD program as I felt receiving training in both medicine and research would strengthen my ability to translate research into patient care. Not only would I have an awareness of what clinical questions need answering, but what types of information are available and how information is accessed.

I also enjoy working in both disciplines. In medicine, I feel a strong sense of responsibility while working as part of a team and making decisions that can have immediate impacts. Meanwhile, research offers the opportunity to focus my attention more deeply and over a longer period of time, working towards building a shareable product. I also enjoy the problem solving aspects in both – every patient case and every research question has unique challenges.

I was particularly attracted to UBC’s MD/PhD program because of the flexibility of its curriculum and the opportunity to work with my PhD supervisor, Dr. Marco Marra.

For your thesis project you investigated the molecular changes that could drive the development of an aggressive cancer and your findings have already been published in several publications. Tell me more about your research and what you feel was the most important finding from your thesis?
My research investigated how changes in a particular gene, MEF2B, could contribute to the development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. MEF2B helps control how the information in the genome – the genetic material of an organism – is used by a cell.

Through DNA sequencing, we were able to map how changes in the gene affected the ‘reading’ of the rest of the genome. I found that in non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the MEF2B gene is less active than in normal cells and the normal protective functions of the gene are lost.

Insights into the development of the disease, like these, are the foundation on which targeted cancer therapies can be developed.

What advice would you offer prospective students wanting to pursue a career in research?
Value your collaborations – you never know when the person you’ve just met could end up being the one who can teach you a technique you need to learn, supply access to equipment you need, provide valuable feedback on a manuscript or share career advice.

In 10 years, what UBC moment will you still be talking about?
The hard work that goes into both research and medical clerkship have made the final steps of completion really significant to me. Memorable moments include when I got the last lab result I needed for my thesis, my defense, my last day in lab and the last patient I saw on the wards. It is still a bit surreal to be done!

What’s next for you?
I’ll be starting residency in Anatomical Pathology at UBC in July. Anatomical pathologists are doctors who identify disease in tissue specimens. Their work typically includes assessing surgical specimens under the microscope, evaluating molecular investigations on tissue and performing hospital autopsies. The diagnoses made by pathologists are often pivotal to patient care and I’m honored to learn how to fulfill that responsibility. I’m also excited to continue researching how the molecular profiling of cancer tissue can contribute to patient care decisions.